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Cannes 2001 - Part One: Masters not quite masterly
THIS summer's Cannes International Film Festival (May 2001) had a brilliant line-up of auteurs. Names like Jean-Luc Godard, Shohei Imamura, Nanni Moretti, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Manoel de Oliveira, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola spelt magic and excitement, but the works of some were disappointing.
Godard, for instance, whose "Eulogy of Love", failed to ignite the spark which once set aflame the French New Wave. His is a vague love story, which bundles together personal musings and overtly critical swipes at other directors. At the end of the movie, one is left feeling that it is but the ranting of a man in his twilight years.
Hou's "Millennium Mambo" is no patch on his earlier "Flowers of Shanghai". Tracing the life of Vicky, who is torn between two men, Hou takes us this time into the world of crime, deception and jealousy as he captures the sleaze of Taipei's night clubs and techno bars. As one critic said, "the only thing common about the two films is that the characters in both spend much of their time stoned out of their skulls". In "Shanghai", it was opium and alcohol, and in "Mambo" it is chemical temptation of every conceivable kind.
And, goodness gracious, what has gone wrong with Kiarostami, whose "ABC Africa" looks at AIDS with little feeling or sensitivity? Is this the man who gave us such classics as "Where is My Friend's Home", "Through the Olive Tress" and "Taste of Cherry"? "ABC Africa" (essentially a documentary, though the festival did not term it so), made at the behest of the United Nations Fund for Agricultural Development, captures the faces of thousands of Ugandan children orphaned by the scourge. Somehow, this effort seems so half hearted and heartless (most cruel I would say, when one notices the way a nurse is shown packing the body of an infant), that I wonder whether the Iranian auteur was forced into it.
Finally, Michael Haneke - who drove viewers out of the auditorium with his earlier "Funny Games", a psychologically gut wrenching murder drama - takes sexual repression to the creepy crevices of depravity in his latest offering. Isabelle Huppert is "The Piano Teacher", whose depressing existence in a cooped-up flat with a domineering mother pushes her not just to watch peep shows and copulating couples in cars, but also to set freaky terms for a relationship with a student. Haneke is not happy about stopping at this: Huppert sniffing at used tissues and gynaecologically mutilating herself are scenes nauseating enough to have been edited out.
But Liv Ullmann's jury thought it fit to honour "The Piano Teacher" with the Grand Prize, the second most coveted trophy at Cannes after the Golden Palm. Huppert got a well deserved Best Actress pat, and her student, Benoit Magimel, a not-so-well- deserved Best Actor award.
What was undoubtedly worthy of the jury's recognition was Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room" from Italy. It won the Golden Palm.
The Italian director, who also acts in his movies, gives us, perhaps for the first time, a work least personal. An important step forward for Moretti after the static self-parody of his recent creations - "Dear Diary" and "April" - "The Son's Room" is finely tuned, with not an emotion out of place. Superbly acted by the entire cast, the movie steps away from Moretti's customary narcissism and trademark passions like social and political concerns. "The Son's Room" reflects a new maturity of a director who paints the tale of pain and grief with rare dignity. Even when the camera lingers long on the funeral/coffin scene, Moretti gets his frames into a perfect rhythm, where I could not find anything amiss, where I could not feel a single exaggerated emotion or expression.
So much so for the tightness of the script and the strength of the maker, who does not let himself be swayed away by a story which has all the ingredients to push your heart over your head.
Moretti's alter ego in "The Son's Room" is a psychiatrist, who does not allow the woe-filled world of his patients to intrude his little home of joy, no not until that fateful Sunday. Planning to go running with his teenage son, Moretti is urgently called away by one of his patients. The boy goes out diving instead and drowns.
Guilt and sorrow grip him, his wife and their daughter. Although he is constantly assured by the rest that the son would have gone out to sea in any case, running or no running, the tragedy becomes so obsessive and its image so hauntingly powerful in Moretti's mind that they drive a wedge between him and the family. An important scene where the girl becomes aggressive during a school basketball match sums up the tension with extraordinary precision. However, the boy's girlfriend ultimately helps and soothes the family to get over its angst, and the final shots reveal a certain tranquillity, a certain poignancy that can only flow out of an exceptionally disciplined mind. Moretti's is, and more.
Another film that was as interesting is Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land". A cracking political satire which captures the futility of war, this work is the culmination of Tanovic's years of documenting the Bosnian conflict. It is in fact the microcosm of the 1993 war in former Yugoslavia that is sometimes ironic, sometimes dramatic, but almost always humourous.
A Bosnian and a Serb soldier are trapped between enemy lines, and apart from the predicament of reaching their respective zones safely from the no-man's land, they also have to deal with the mine strapped body of a colleague.
Enter television reporters and the United Nations, and what we have is a collage of colour and wit that seems to underline the folly of such conflicts in a work whose sparse canvas and engrossing screenplay (it won a prize for this) add to the content and form of "No Man's Land".
Tanovic is a Bosnian, but what comes out strongly in the picture is its anti-war message. And from a first-time director, this was just splendid.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 10 2001)
This story continues in Cannes 2001 - Part Two, on June 17 2001)